Poverty: a Multi-dimensional Challenge
Dr Vuyelwa Nhlapo shares her views on the ongoing challenges of poverty eradication; the challenges that resource shortages pose, the multi-dimensional aspects of poverty and the negative influence it is having on our youth.
The NDA’s mandate is a broad one and considering the numerous challenges that often run parallel to poverty alleviation are you satisfied with what the agency has been able to achieve the last few years?
The mandate of the NDA is indeed very broad. In many respects it reflects the breadth of poverty challenges that we face in South Africa. In fact, the National Development Plan also touches on the issue of poverty and the impact this has on our economic growth.
We have in the last two years conducted a review of our activities in light of our mandate to determine the extent of the impact we are making. If we consider the significant challenges that remain, I don’t think I can declare myself satisfied.
While I acknowledge that our team has done great work to stretch our limited resources and that we have developed strong working relationships with other development partners, I still feel we could achieve more with expanded means at our disposal.
The reality is that if the NDA is to make a significant impact going forward, we need to reconsider its objectives and the way we resource it.
Poverty is often described as a multi-dimensional challenge. Can you give us some insight into what this means?
My doctoral studies focused on the various dimensions of poverty and the field work I conducted as part of my research, gave me some insight into this challenge. Comments such as: ‘I go to bed hungry at night’; ‘We are a family of nine, sleeping in one room’; ‘I feel vulnerable as I have no access to electricity or other services’ and ‘I have been looking for a job for a long time, yet I cannot find one’, are made by people who view themselves as poor.
It is also serves to confirm that poverty, means different things to different people. It touches on a wide range of issues: vulnerability, food insecurity, lack of access to housing and education to name but a few.
How do you break this challenge down into a manner that allows you to tackle the challenges?
At the NDA this is a challenge we have wrestled with. Where do you start and where do you end? For us the solution was to identify and focus on priority areas that we believe, and is also confirmed by those we serve, will have the greatest impact.
In the South African context research indicates that about 38% of adults and children go to bed without food. We therefore identified food security as a priority – it is also an issue that our government has prioritised in terms of poverty eradication.
The second aspect we identified is the question of education. Without education individuals easily become trapped in the cycle of poverty. Education is therefore a key to a better future, thus it is a critical aspect in breaking the poverty cycle. Our focus in this respect is on early childhood development because we believe education can only be successful if a child has a proper foundation in their early years. `An early start for a better future’ as we say in our ECD campaign.
The third area we have looked at is the question of unemployment. Our approach is to develop programmes that help create sustainable employment and other opportunities for them to earn an income.
The above three, without the capacity to implement these priority areas becomes a fruitless exercise. Therefore the first priority area is capacity building, which enables CSOs to effectively implement development programmes.
Civil Society Organisations(CSOs) are very important in the work that the NDA does. How would you rate the standard of local CSOs when compared internationally?
I have worked with CSOs from the United Nations level, across sub-Sahara Africa and in other developing nations. I every instance you find the challenges they have are pretty much the same. The biggest obstacles is always access to resources that will enable them to do the work that is required of them in the communities.
What does differ is the manner in which governments in each country respond to and support CSOs. In South Africa our government has recognised the importance of the role CSOs play in addressing challenges of development.
Our government has created institutional mechanisms, which is incidentally why the NDA exists, to enable the flow of resources to CSOs and support them in the work that they do.
So comparatively speaking, there is a supportive government and one only needs to look at the work done by the Department of Social Development in working with CSOs to achieve our development goals, to see that strong commitment exists.
Where we have some work to do is to ensure that emerging CSOs that invariably lack some capacities - such as mobilising resources and ensuring sound financial governance – need guidance and mentoring before they can flourish and pursue their visions.
What is your assessment of the work that corporate South Africa is doing to alleviate poverty?
I recently attended a conference where the organisers shared the monetary value of corporate social investment (CSI) by South African companies. It is not an insignificant amount of money. What concerns me though is the extent to which the programmes funded through CSI are responsive to the development needs of our country.
Do you believe there is room for big business to work with NDA?
Given the amount of money that is allocated in terms of CSI if there was a concerted effort to ensure there is proper alignment in terms of the priorities that have been set by government in terms of the challenges, I think a greater impact could be made. What we currently have is a very fragmented way of addressing our challenges and I think this creates a missed opportunity in terms of the huge needs that exist. I think if business and organisations like the NDA work together we can find ways to channel their resources into the right places.
Social and Economic development is becoming an attractive career field for many young professionals. What advice would you give them as they start out?
It is good to see young blood entering this space, the social and economic development arena needs new ideas and the energy that young people bring with them as much as any other industry or sector.
For me it is also important to see young people entering this field because it gives me a sense that young people are starting to become aware, grapple with and move towards addressing the challenges that exist. I believe this is an important starting point in terms of young people developing the special attributes that are needed by young people to understand the social ills of our country. This understanding of the ills is very important when you are developing and implementing programmes designed to address them.
To succeed in this space, one therefore needs not only professional skills but also a keen appreciation of the human challenges we face as a country.
Poverty and its impact has no doubt evolved over the years. Currently what are you seeing as the greatest negative impact of poverty in South Africa?
It is a serious concern that 21 years into our democracy we are still highlighting poverty as one of the biggest concerns that we are still facing as a country. In terms of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) sub-Sahara Africa is far from reaching the goal of halving poverty by 2015.
In the South African context we have poor South African and poor people from other countries who have come to South Africa to seek a better life, placing enormous strain on the limited resources that are designed to lift people out of poverty.
The fact that people are foreigners or South Africans simply talks to the multi-dimensional aspect of poverty it affects all of us in this region.
I have had the opportunity to visit a number of countries and gain perspectives on how they are dealing with the challenge of poverty. Brazil is one of the few countries I visited that has succeeded with respect to the MDGs in terms of halving poverty.
What they did was to determine what skills they required as a country in order to start influencing policy at education level towards ensuring the country could channel students towards responding to the demand that exists in the workplace.
In this way students who passed through tertiary institutions are equipped with skills that are relevant in terms of what is needed to grow the economy. In this way they have been able to manage the supply and demand issues in terms of skills and absorption of young workers in the market.
It is my observation that in our country, we are not getting our young people into fields that will enable them to find work when they have concluded their studies. This requires a rigorous discussion and policy change to manage this situation. There are far too many graduates, often from homes where all financial means possible were used to give them an education, who are unemployed. This is undoubtedly our biggest challenge in terms of poverty and we need to address it as quickly as possible.
When the time comes for you to move on from the NDA and pursue new professional challenges. What legacy will you like to have left behind?
When I joined the NDA 5 years ago, I arrived at an organisation that was very unstable. A number of chief executives had very short tenures at the helm of the agency and the internal leadership was in disarray.
I was, to be frank, very concerned. I said to myself this organisation has such an important role to play in addressing the scourge of poverty and helping build our country.
When I complete my term of office, I believe I will be leaving behind an organisation that is stable and that the organisation is attracting attention for the work that it is doing with CSOs and the role it is playing in strengthening and building the capacity of these organisations. Therefore when I leave the NDA I trust I will have positioned it in a space where it is consistently recognised as being one of the key agencies when it comes to working with CSOs and building them into organisations that can make a significant contribution in the fight against poverty.
LEADING EDGE | NDA
by Valdi Pereira